Margaret Cavendish: SFF’s Forgotten Ancestress

 

by Hel Gurney

Though one might not think it from the tone of some contemporary debates, women have been writing speculative fiction for a long time – and it didn’t just start in the 60s with Ursula LeGuin, or in the 30s with Andre Norton. We can trace a lineage of female writers whose work anticipates the genre: Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s 1915 utopian novel Herland, or Mary Shelley’s classic 1818 exploration of technology and humanity, Frankenstein. Yet one writer is often conspicuously absent from such chronologies: Margaret Cavendish, whose 1666 publication The Blazing World engages fascinatingly with the themes and concerns of science fiction and fantasy today.

 

Margaret Cavendish was a 17th century English duchess who wrote and published prolifically, producing several volumes of poetry, plays, letters, and essays as well as prose fiction. This in itself was trailblazing: most women at the time did not have the freedom or resources for sustained engagement in public intellectual life, but Cavendish’s various privileges (and the support of her brother and husband) enabled her to become something of an exception. She was the first woman to attend a meeting of the Royal Society, where scientific experiments were presented to a private audience. However, due to her gender and her challenging ideas, she was generally considered a laughing stock by the men of the Enlightenment, with Samuel Pepys declaring her ‘mad, conceited and ridiculous’. The Blazing World is – among other things – an expression of rage against her exclusion from the scientific and intellectual communities of the time, and an assertion of her own worth in the face of their mockery.

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The Blazing World is a tale written in the utopian tradition. Indeed, in places it reads as a direct response to Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis, which was the first utopian novel after More’s Utopia itself. True to form, it begins as a traveller’s narrative, following a woman from a world like ours, lost at sea, who accidentally sails into another world through a passage hidden in the North Pole. She learns that this new world, the Blazing-World, is a planet attached to her own, yet obscured from her fellow men by the brightness of its sun. Cavendish is surely deserving of a note in the early history of SFF simply from her depictions of interplanetary travel. Not only through mysterious polar channels, but through a form of flight, when the spirits of two characters travel ‘as lightly as two thoughts’ to this world, Earth.

 

However, it is not only this which makes The Blazing World an important precursor to modern sci-fi and fantasy. Cavendish makes liberal use of magical and fantastical elements, whilst also depicting a society which has scientific endeavour and discovery at its foundations. The Blazing World is inhabited by powerful spirits who can travel through the world’s core, and various races of mythological-seeming ‘Beast-men’ such as satyrs and mer-people.

Yet these Beast-men are committed to the pursuit of science. Cavendish uses them to directly parody the Royal Society. Their technologies and resources, when brought back to the protagonist’s home world, are capable of wreaking devastation on her behalf. The Blazing-World is a maelstrom of disparate elements, many of which we would today identify as belonging to science-fiction, to fantasy, or to both.

 

One key science-fiction idea which The Blazing World anticipates is that of other universes. At one point in the story, pocket universes are created with different physical and philosophical laws, most of which quickly collapse due to their untenable structure. This episode was intended to illustrate one of Cavendish’s main philosophical tenets, discussed in more detail in Observations Upon Experimental Philosophy, the tract she published alongside The Blazing World . She believed that everything in existence was composed of ‘rational self-moving matter’ and followed material laws, rather than there being a division between the material and the spiritual. More generally in this area, the ways The Blazing World engages with space, worlds-within-worlds, and metatextuality are fascinating and deeply weird: alas, it’s impossible to do them justice in a short introductory article.

Another idea central to Cavendish’s work, and to speculative fiction today, is a strong investment in the fantastical as a method of performing social commentary. The Blazing World’s society is in some ways a parodic extension of the obsessions and foibles of England at the time: it also gave Cavendish an arena to create and explore a culture with less oppressive gendered dynamics than her own. The protagonist – unlike Cavendish herself – is permitted to engage with its scientists and philosophers on an equal intellectual footing, who not only answer her questions but respect her ideas and criticisms. The Blazing World is certainly not an uncomplicatedly feminist text – the protagonist is only able to gain such power and respect through marrying the world’s Emperor, who is so charmed by her that he gives her free rein to institute whatever social reforms she likes – but it does provide a number of lightning-bright visions of female power. Cavendish’s discussions of her works frequently come back down to ‘fancy’ and ‘fantasy’. With this flag nailed to the mast, the avowedly ‘fanciful’ nature of her text allows her to evade real-world criticism while pushing boundaries within the confines of her fiction and poetry. This contradictory relationship with her genre, particularly the tension between the scientific and the fanciful, speaks interestingly to modern ideas about how fantasy and science fiction are gendered – such as the increasingly prevalent attitude that sci-fi is ‘hard’ and for men, while fantasy is ‘soft’ and for women.

With long, baroque sentences spanning several pages, The Blazing-World is by no means an easy read, but it is certainly a valuable one. Only relatively recently has Cavendish’s work been dusted off and brought down from the shelves of history – the Margaret Cavendish Society (dedicated to academic study of her work) was founded in 1997, and a growing number of SFF enthusiasts are taking note. It’s still hard to spot direct influence of her work today, although there is a sly reference to The Blazing-World in Alan Moore’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. For anyone wishing to read The Blazing World alongside discussions of its biographical and cultural context – and indeed other Cavendish works, such as the delightfully queer play about an all-female commune, The Convent of Pleasure – an excellent starting point is Paper Bodies: A Margaret Cavendish Reader by Sylvia Bowerbank and Sara Mendelson. Regardless of the route modern readers take, a voyage to Cavendish’s world is well worth the effort.

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